By Pat McGonigle
**Note: Climbing or jumping from the Gateway Arch is a federal offense. Nearly all attempts have ended with jail time or death.
ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - Under the cover of darkness, early on the morning of September 14, 1992, John Vincent and a small band of helpers he recruited gathered around the north leg of the world famous Gateway Arch.
It was just before 3 a.m. and the 25-year-old had a plan that seemed so outlandish it was guaranteed to enlist the help of imaginative (and rebellious) kindred spirits. Vincent planned to climb up the 630-foot slope of the north leg, ascend to the top of the arch, and base-jump back to the ground with a parachute strapped to his back.
"Putting the first suction cup on there," Vincent recalled recently. "It's like, 'Wow! This is it! It's on now.'"
What happened over the next three hours would make St. Louis history and make John Vincent a sort of renegade cult hero in the base-jumping community.
What most don't realize, however, is that Vincent's original plan wasn't to jump the Arch at all. John Vincent spent most the summer of 1992 trying to do a base-jump off the Sears Tower in Chicago.
High security and equipment problems forced Vincent to ditch those plans and fly back home to Chicago.
"I was stopping over in St. Louis for a layover on Southwest," Vincent said. "I was looking down at the Arch and I was thinking, 'Hmm. I wonder if these suction cups would stick to that Arch?'"
Vincent impulsively rented a car at the airport and drove directly to the famous landmark. He toured the Arch grounds, watched the movie in the museum below, and then tested his suction cups on the Arch's exterior. Every impulse, reckless and adventurous, told Vincent to go for it.
"So there I was all alone in St. Louis," Vincent said. "Had to round me up a couple of cameramen and a getaway driver, which I did."
John Vincent was born in St. Louis in 1967. But his parents moved the family to Texas when he was only six-months-old. He had no friends or family to call to help him with his wild idea, but no matter.
Within hours, John Vincent would have a surprisingly dedicated group of three people helping him.
Traveling to the St. Louis Galleria to buy a video camera to record his jump and a two-radio to coordinate his efforts with a camera person on the ground, Vincent spotted a vanity license plate that caught his attention. The plate read "Danzig," as in the popular heavy metal band of the 1990s
Vincent struck up a conversation with the young woman driving that car. Within hours, that woman agreed to be the driver of Vincent's "getaway car" after jumping off the Arch. Shortly after that, two men at that woman's apartment complex in south St. Louis County agreed to be Vincent's video crew for the jump.
"I've got good people skills," Vincent says. "Two nights later, I went down there at about three in the morning. Starting climbing around 3:30 or so. Took me two hours and 15 minutes to get to the top. Got up there right about the time the sun was starting to rise."
Vincent took his time at the top of the Arch. He absorbed his surroundings and he even took time to say a prayer for a man who attempted a similar stunt, with fatal results, 12 years earlier.
On November 22, 1980, 33-year-old Kenneth Swyers of Overland, Missouri planned to jump out of a plane and land on the Arch. Once there, Swyers' plan was to leap from the top of the Arch and release a second parachute.
Tragically, Swyers' attempt happened on a cold, blustery day in St. Louis. He landed on the Arch as planned, but the wind carried him down the side of the north leg before he could deploy his second parachute. The parachutist careened to his death with his wife watching from the ground.
Vincent knew the story well and said a prayer for Swyers and his family from the top of the Arch.
"He got his angel wings that day," Vincent said.
Shortly after 6 a.m., after coordinating the jump via two-way radio with his crew on the ground, Vincent took his famous leap.
"Yeah, it was beautiful. Looking at downtown there. Stepping off the Arch. Being in freefall, watching the buildings going by across the street. Yeah, it was really nice."
Vincent's descent took only about 20 seconds.
Once on the ground, his escape plan began to fall apart.
"The cameraman and I had different getaway cars. And I got away. The cameraman got arrested. I didn't know this until I got back to New Orleans. After the jump, I stopped by y'all's studio, there at NBC. Did a quick interview then hopped on a Southwest flight back to New Orleans."
That's when Vincent learned his co-conspirators were being charged with crimes for recording the illegal stunt.
Vincent had a brief period of euphoria to savor his accomplishment, but the weight of the legal system quickly began to bear down on him.
"They were not too happy with me," Vincent laughs.
Vincent was charged with two class B misdemeanors.
"Climbing a national monument without a permit, jumping off a national monument without a permit," Vincent recites as though it happened yesterday.
Eventually, Vincent was sentenced to three months in a federal prison for the jump.
"The prison was really nice, there wasn't even a fence around it. Eglin Federal Prison Camp in Florida. They had tennis courts, beach volleyball, big screen TV, pool tables, really nice people there," he said.
In the years that followed, Vincent completed many other death-defying leaps from world famous landmarks. The World Trade Center in New York City, the Superdome in New Orleans and mountain ranges in Europe. An MTV segment chronicling Vincent's "career highlights" can be seen here.
Vincent eventually found work in the oil drilling industry in Louisiana. He excelled at underwater drilling and other dangerous trades not suited for most.
Vincent's suction cups and all of his memorabilia from his Arch jump were washed away by the floods of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Now 46-years-old, Vincent lives in Hawaii. Shortly after he relocated to Hawaii last year, Vincent spotted a 13-story building that proved irresistible.
"It was a rock climber's dream, bricks sticking out in all directions," he said.
After once again arranging for someone to record his stunt, Vincent scaled up the side of the building in less than a few minutes to the horror and astonishment of everyone back on the ground.
Once again, Vincent was apprehended by the authorities. His punishment for the Hawaii climb was less severe than his Arch jump. A judge ordered Vincent to spend two weeks in a psychiatric ward.
"It's funny. You climb something in St. Louis and they want to throw you in federal prison for a few months. But you climb a building in Hawaii and they throw you in a nuthouse for a couple of weeks," he said. "Yeah, I'm back on my meds."
Vincent also once again found incarceration agreeable. The Hawaii psychiatric ward was furnished with "sushi, swimming pools, and smoking hot nurses."
Since that initial stunt after arriving on the island, Vincent mainly keeps a low profile and enjoys swimming with sea turtles most mornings.
He was not easy not easy to track down, but NewsChannel 5 just had to ask the only man to ever climb the Arch and jump off without dying: Would you do it again?
"Oh yeah, yeah definitely. If I could do it legally," he said. "I'm too old for jail. It was kind of spur of the moment. I was born in St. Louis. June of '67. Yeah, I'm a local boy. I'd been up there as a child. Starting skydiving at 16, it was always in the back of my mind."